Monthly Archives: June 2020

For Arturo O’Farrill’s 60th birthday, Downbeat Features from 2017 and 2014, a DB Blindfold Test From 2016, and an O’Farrill-Eddie Palmieri Conversation from 2003

Pianist-composer-bandleader Arturo O’Farrill turned 60 yesterday. For the occasion, I’ve put together an omnibus post containing — in order of presentation — Downbeat feature articles from 2017 and 2014, an edited Blindfold Test from 2016, and an unedited conversation between Arturo and Eddie Palmieri (with some input from Brian Lynch) in 2003 conversation at Birdland that became a Downbeat article.


Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdes-Familia Project (DownBeat Article) – (2017):

At its core, the new Arturo O’Farrill-Chucho Valdés collaboration, Familia: Tribute to Bebo and Chico (Motéma), is a meditation on the eternal subject of patriarchy, the complex relations of fathers, sons and daughters. The title references Bebo Valdés (1918-2013) and Chico O’Farrill (1921-2001), both seminal figures in the evolution and global dissemination of Cuban music, whose respective musical legacies receive a sprawling interpretation from their eminent pianist-composer-bandleader sons, themselves separated by a generation. Their talented grandchildren—New Yorkers Adam (23) and Zack O’Farrill (26) on trumpet and drums, and Habaneros Jessie (31) and Leyanis Valdés (36) on drums and piano—refract ancestral spirits through a decidedly 21st century prism.

Speaking at his Brooklyn studio, O’Farrill traced the gestation moment to 2002, when Chucho Valdés invited him to perform at Havana’s Plaza Jazz Festival. “I was ambivalent about going,” O’Farrill said. “I was traumatized by the idea of betraying my father, who was bitter about the revolution for many years, but softened late in life. He rejected an opportunity to return to Cuba when Miami’s Cuban-American community stated it would boycott him. That tore him up. I wondered what could possibly be so special about your land of birth that would cause you such agony.”

After receiving Valdés’ invitation, O’Farrill received no initial confirmation of venue or accommodations, and wrote the festival organizer that he wouldn’t make the trip. The organizer responded, “Please come—we have a special surprise for you.” O’Farrill continued: “I get to Cuba, and men with suits and a badge meet me at the airport. I’m thinking: maybe I’m going to die; these guys are either CIA or Cuban secret police.”

Instead, they brought O’Farrill to “a beautiful building, all stone and chrome and wood, called ‘Palacio O’Farrill.’” Outside, a line of people awaited his arrival. “The director of this hotel, which they said was an old O’Farrill house, opened the car door and said, “Welcome home, Mr. O’Farrill.’ I started crying. As I’ve spent more time in Cuba, I’ve realized how much the sounds and sights my father grew up with, his cultural roots, shaped his aesthetic. I developed a powerful obsession to perform my father’s music in his native land.”

Now 57, O’Farrill arrived in New York in 1965, when his parents relocated from Mexico City, where his father—who spent 1948 to 1952 in the Apple—had moved from Havana in 1957. In 1997, after a protracted Oedipal journey that that saw him shun and then embrace his father’s distinguished corpus, O’Farrill launched a 14-year Sunday night sinecure at Birdland helming the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill. O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, featured on the first disk of Familia, has occupied the slot since 2011.

In September 2014, Valdés came to town for a Jazz at Lincoln Center collaboration with Pedrito Martinez and Wynton Marsalis titled “Ochas,” an eight-part suite dedicated to eight Yoruban orishas. O’Farrill dropped in on a rehearsal. “We were hanging out, and then went to lunch,” O’Farrill recalled. “We talked about how lovely it would be to work together, to do something that extended the idea of family and legacy and our fathers and our kids. Later, I’d see Chucho at one thing or another, and we’d remind each other of the idea, until we started talking concretely about the music and the concept—we’d write a piece together, I’d write a few pieces, we’d do a piece by Chucho, re-record a piece by Bebo and by Chico, and then turn over the baton to the young people.”

Towards that end, O’Farrill and Valdés spent several days at Valdés’ Miami home, brainstorming repertoire and co-writing the album’s opening track, “BeboChicoChuchoTuro,” a Haitano merengue upon which both pianists stretch out. “We sat at two pianos, and played, and talked, and played; sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee; talked and played some more,” O’Farrill said. “Although Chucho is a commanding presence, he’s soft-spoken. He chooses his words carefully. But at the piano he becomes gregarious, carousing and absolutely accessible. A lot of sentimental, major, diatonic, happy sounding music came out of that meeting. It’s all about family, and you can’t avoid it. But it’s not like me at all—every cell of my being fights sentimentality and feel-goodness.”

A member of the musicians union at 14, O’Farrill was still a teenager when his father first hired him for jingle sessions. First-hand observation of Chico O’Farrill’s scores taught him to arrange and compose; tough love from bandmates and the ministrations of Andy Gonzalez, helped him evolve into a proficient practitioner of clave and Afro-Caribbean codes. Meanwhile, in parallel, O’Farrill was cultivating another, very different tonal personality, oriented toward embracing speculative musical environments. He attributes this mindset to examples set by Carla Bley, who he joined at 19 and remained with throughout the ’80s, and Charles Mingus, whose album Mingus Ah Um “changed me forever.”

“Mingus would take the existing ingredients of acceptable jazz composition, and deconstruct them and flip them around and toy with them and throw in this and that,” O’Farrill said. “That’s where I come from more than anything else. Carla taught me to stick to your guns no matter what. I love writing, but I love art more. My father was an innate and brilliant composer—writing was his end-all and be-all. But for me, it’s always about the greater challenge of using your craft to serve the art.”

That stated aesthetic pervades ALJO’s prior CD, Cuba: The Conversation Continues; on Familia, O’Farrill applies it effectively on “Three Revolutions.” The piece began as a response to the death of Fidel Castro while O’Farrill was in Havana to bury his father’s ashes, not long after the election of the 45th U.S. President. “It was a sad day in Havana,” O’Farrill said. “The Revolution is not going away, but even so, it felt like it was gone. And after the U.S. election, I felt the American Revolution died. The third revolution is the one we all still hope will come—a global realization that every human being will be accorded the same value as every other, that we’ll wake up to the reality that if one suffers, we all suffer.”

O’Farrill explicated: Valdés’ opening cadenza, “strong, romantic, passionate, quoting Rachmaninoff,” denotes “the power and grace of the Cuban Revolution.” His own cadenza is “enigmatic and modern and strange, and asks if we really had a revolution.” There follows a “minimalist section that indicates militaristic roboticness, very 16th-notey, very square, but with a non-metric melody that denotes a strong undertow of resistance against the metric rigidity.” Prefacing kinetic solos by the co-leaders is a “‘matrix’ section, where everything is blown out of the water and you hear these trails of sound, calling into question the question-mark—that there is no finality; we’re still looking for that third revolution.”

ALJO captures the elegant essence of“Ecuacion,” a 1982 composition on which Bebo Valdés juxtaposed the language of bebop with his own definitive conception of mambo big band writing. O’Farrill first performed it in 2005 when Bebo performed “Suite Cubana” with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis invited O’Farrill to form in 2002. The program notes for Bebo De Cuba (Calle 54) quote Valdés that he wrote it during an evening of conversation with Dizzy Gillespie in Stockholm, where Valdés settled and formed a new family in 1963, three years after defecting from Cuba. “I decided to write Dizzy something on the spot with diminished fifths, which I played for him on the piano,” Valdés wrote.

Both pianists improvise floridly on Hilario Duran’s arrangement of Chucho Valdés’ “Tema De Bebo,” which Valdés often performs with his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers, and on “Pianitis,” which Machito commissioned from Chico circa 1979. The idiomatic grace and lucidity of O’Farrill’s solo on the former piece denotes his intimacy with the classical Cuban piano style, as does his nuanced solo flight on his father’s “Pure Emotion.” “I adored Bebo,” said O’Farrill, who played the “Latin piano” tracks on the 2010 animated film Chico and Rita, in which the male lead is loosely based on Bebo Valdés in Batista’s Cuba. “The value system of writing in the mambo big band doesn’t exist any more. The Thad Jones-Bob Brookmeyer-Jim McNeely resonance on all of us who write and arrange for big bands has resulted in different textures. Rightly so. Things change. But Bebo did that so beautifully, so lush and fat and gorgeous, so lovely to behold. It’s timeless.”

“Bebo was one of the most personal musicians ever,” Chucho Valdés wrote via email. “He was equally proficient writing and arranging for big band, string orchestras and small groups.” Valdés added that his father imparted comprehensive home-schooling in the codes of jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music. “He told me to have an academic background, to study pure classical, to learn each genre correctly in its specialty, without jumping. We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned by epoch ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal. He taught me to be an individual musician, and I have taught these things to my children. This recording clearly proves that they have found their own way.”

Jessie Valdés upholds Chucho’s encomium on “Recuerdo” (“Memory”), a flowing Jazz Latin piece dedicated to Bebo Valdés that he propels with painterly, subtly percolating beats, and features Leyanis Valdés’ flowing, harmonically informed, high-chops solo—the fruit fell close to the family tree. “We’d see my father studying all day, and he ordered me to study every night,” Jessie recently told a Cuban journalist. “He’d listen to the music of Oscar Peterson and my grandfather. One time he went on a trip and brought back for me a very small set of drums, and said he’d place my drums by those of Enrique Plá. Leyanis and I are proud to be his children. Our goal is to respect his musical patterns, to follow the tradition that he and Bebo have charted in terms of good music and composition as we compose our own music.”

A similar predisposition to pay respect to elders through individualistic expression infuses the contributions of the O’Farrill siblings, both semi-regular ALJO participants . “We could probably sing back entire suites of our grandfather, as much from hearing it a ton and playing it a bunch as from overt, deliberate study,” Zack O’Farrill said. “But our father always supported us in playing our own music that has very little to do with what he does or what our grandfather did.”

Zack’s contribution, “Gonki, Gonki” a Jazz Latin line fueled by his complex clave permutations and elevated by inflamed solos from young Cuban trumpeters Kali Rodríguez-Peña and Jesus Ricardo Anduz, sardonically references his mother’s descriptor for the run-of-the-mill salsa gigs Arturo O’Farrill still was playing when Zack was a child. “Neither of us rebelled against his music the way my father rebelled against Latin music growing up,” he said. “He’s invited us to join what he does in a very equal way, and he’s also introduced us to things his dad couldn’t introduce him to—free jazz, straight-ahead jazz, Rock, Pop and R&B.”

“As much as we play with him, he’s our father first, bandleader second,” said Adam O’Farrill, who titled “Run and Jump,” to which he contributes a powerful trumpet solo, to reference the videogames he and his brother played with their father while growing up. “Stylistically, it’s a huge departure from the rest of the album,” O’Farrill said. “It’s not in any sort of Afro-Cuban tradition. But it is about fatherhood and fun, and the kind of relationship you can form with your parents.”

In a sense, the O’Farrill brothers’ contributions mirror their father’s mandate that ALJO not replicate canonic repertoire like a “museum band.” “For one thing, the technical refinements in the way pianos and trumpets and saxophones are made gives them a very different sound,” Arturo O’Farrill said. “Also, in the 1950s, when a lot of this music was originally played, songo and timba and other incredible rhythms hadn’t been invented. So in playing this music, we’re honoring the spirit and the tradition it was created in, but we’re very capable of adding to that conversation.

“When you go to Cuba, you understand that we still haven’t solved the riddle that Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauzá were beginning to unravel—the thing that binds us together. It’s not just artistic. It’s spiritual. Cuba and America are so powerfully part of one another; you have the messiest divorces with the people you love most. So when I look to my future, I have to look to my father’s native land. Something in that soil informed my father’s entire being as a musician. Something in that land speaks to me, speaks to my training, speaks to my furtherance and my history and my trajectory.”

Sidebar: Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill and Dionisio Ramón Emilio “Bebo” Valdés Amaro:

“For me, Chico O’Farrill is the best arranger in the history of music,” Chucho Valdes said last May. He spoke in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note after a set by his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers that ended with “Tema Para Bebo,” a song he composed just after the death of his father, Bebo Valdés, on March 22, 2013, at the age of 94. Pere and fils Valdés shared an October 9th birthday; Chucho reported at the time that his father sang him the memorable refrain in a dream.

Bebo Valdés was born in the village of Quivican to a cigar factory worker. His grandfather was a slave. He left for Havana at 17 to study at Conservatorio Municipal, where he remained until 1943. During these years he befriended the iconic bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, with whom he recorded the 2005 CD El Arte Del Sabor. By 1941, when Chucho was born, Bebo was playing regularly in Havana’s dance clubs; from 1943 to 1947 he was a staff arranger at the progressive radio station Mil Diez. In 1947, he left Havana for Haiti, and spent the ensuing year with bandleader Isaac Saleh, during which he keyed into traditional drumming and song. He returned in 1948 for an engagement with vocalist Rita Montaner, and became house pianist at the Tropicana Club with Armando Romeu until 1957. In 1952, he participated in Cuba’s first descarga (jam session) recording; he also introduced the batanga, a dance style that incorporated the sacred two-headed batá drum into the percussive base. In 1958, he played piano on Nat “King” Cole’s Cole Espagnol recordings, and contributed four arrangements.

In 1959, Valdés began using Chucho occasionally in his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. They next played together on the 1993 CD, Bebo Rides Again (Messidor), convened at Paquito D’Rivera’s instigation, which, along with D’Rivera’s Cuba Jazz: 90 Miles To Cuba (TropiJazz-1996), brought Bebo back to international consciousness. Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary Calle 54 documented their next encounter; a subsequent documentary, Old Man Bebo, earned its director first prize for Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. During his gloriously productive final decade, Valdés had a hit with the Cuba-meets-flamenco date album Lagrimas Negras with singer Diego El Cigala, creating a high standard that he matched on Suite Cubana and Live at the Village Vanguard.

The son of an Irish-born lawyer and a Cuban mother, O’Farrill—born in Havana in 1921—was slated to follow in his father’s footsteps, but caught the jazz bug as a teenager in a Georgia boarding school and devoted himself to music. He began to arrange for Armando Romeu’s orchestra at the Tropicana cabaret in 1942. In 1947, he organized an ahead-of-the-curve unit called Los Beboppers. A year later, he relocated to New York, where he caught the ear of Benny Goodman, who recorded “Undercurrent Blues.” In quick order, he composed “Cuban Episode” for Stan Kenton, “Afro-Cuban Suite” for Machito with Charlie Parker, “Manteca Suite” for Dizzy Gillespie, and a series of 10″ leader LPs for Norman Granz. These recordings established O’Farrill as the first composer-arranger to blend the vocabularies of modern jazz, 20th century European music, and Afro-Cuban idioms.

They also made him a lodestar figure in Cuba, as implied by Chucho’s recollection: “I learned a lot from the rhythmic structures in Chico’s arrangements that the Tropicana Club Orchestra had, while his recordings with Peruchín, Richard Egües, Guillermo Barreto and Tata Güines are master classes. Chico’s Cha Cha Cha is my favorite.”

During his final 46 years in NYC, O’Farrill functioned successfully as a journeyman arranger, while generating a masterpiece 1967 album Nine Flags (Impulse!), comprised of his originals; 11 albums between 1965 and 1970 with the Count Basie Orchestra; and Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods with Gillespie in 1975. After two decades of radio silence, he recorded the Todd Barkan-produced “comeback” albums Pure Emotion, The Heart Of A Legend and Carambola with the reconstituted Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.



Arturo O’Farrill & ALJO, DownBeat Article (2014):

Since 1997, with occasional interruptions, Arturo O’Farrill has spent Sunday evenings directing big bands at Birdland—14 years with the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Chico O’Farrill, his father; three years with its legatee, his own Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. On the 900th or so such occasion in early June, not long after the release of ALJO’s third CD, The Offense of the Drum (Motéma), O’Farrill opened the show with “Vaca Frita,” a swing-to-mambo original infused with Gil Evans-esque brass, then Chico O’Farrill’s “Trumpet Fantasy,” which juxtaposed rumba-driven call-and-response sections with subtle restatements from the Canción section of Chico’s “Afro-Cuban Suite.”

O’Farrill rose from the piano bench, stated titles and personnel, and introduced “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” which he composed. “I do everything backwards,” he announced. “When I teach jazz history classes, I start with Cecil Taylor, then we go to Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus, we keep searching, and finally end with Scott Joplin. The beginnings of Jazz and Latin come from the same root.”

As on the version that appears on The Offense of The Drum, O’Farrill’s florid introduction evoked Rachmaninoff more than Taylor, but everything else was as stated. Alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli uncorked a soulful a cappella Charlie Parker refraction. An Ellingtonian passage followed, springboarding Seeley into a “West End Blues”-“St. James Infirmary” medley. Baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall’s unaccompanied passage channeled early ‘70s Mingusian Hamiett Bluiett, foreshadowing several call-and-response passages on which the sections, blowing reconfigured Mingus themes (think “Boogie Stop Shuffle” meets “Tijuana Moods”), alternated with bassist Carlo DeRosa, in “Haitian Fight Song” mode. Suddenly, the refrain of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” emerged. The band dropped out for O’Farrill to render a brief falling-down-the-stairs passage. When they reentered, the rhythmic template switched from funk to salsa. Trumpeter John Powell rode the wave, then passed the baton to Seneca Black and Adam O’Farrill—Arturo’s son—for a climactic two-trumpet passage.

By now, patrons packed the room; the applause was raucous. O’Farrill waited. “We’ve decided that Latin Jazz is not defined by Cuban and Puerto Rican music,” he declared, then offered “Mercado en Domingo,” a highlight of the new CD. Composed by Colombian pianist Pablo Mayor, it contained janky trumpet lines, tangoish sax unisons, Rafi Malkiel’s alligatory trombone solo and Seeley’s piercing declamation, all goosed by a porro streetbeat, which would sound apropos in a New Orleans second line. Next was O’Farrill’s “Freilach a Nacht,” a klezmer-ish minor blues propelled by a crackling merengue perhaps one degree of separation removed from a polka. On the set-closer, a Ray Santos mambo dedicated to Mario Bauzá, ALJO idiomatically channeled the soulful Afro-Cuban essence of its namesake.

Within this kinetic six-tune episode, O’Farrill encapsulated the overlapping streams that define his musical production since 2002, when Wynton Marsalis invited him to form the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center. His mandate was to assemble an exhaustive book of “Mambo King” era repertoire associated with his father, Machito, Bauzá, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and other Afro-Caribbean heroes, and to perform it authentically, with an attitude firmly planted in the here-and-now. After JALC severed ties in 2005, O’Farrill regrouped, substituting “Latin” for “Cuban” in the band’s title. In 2007, supported by a 501(c)(3) non-profit called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, he launched an annual concert season at Symphony Space, an Upper West Side theater, which includes an annual musica nuevo concert devoted to commissioned works—The Offense of The Drum culls nine of them—reflecting Pan-American and Afro-diasporic perspectives.

A few days later, in the courtyard of Harlem School of the Arts, where ALJA has its offices, O’Farrill, 54, discussed the roots and branches of his hemispheric sensibility. He recalled the in-studio response of Donald Harrison—on-site to perform the Mardi Gras Indian flagwaver “Iko, Iko,” which ends the album—to a playback of “Mercado en Domingo.” “Donald started laughing quietly,” O’Farrill said. “He understood the idea I’m selling—that the same music he grew up with in the streets of New Orleans was happening in the streets of Bogotá or Lima or, for that matter, any major metropolis in South America where brass bands played African rhythms. We’re playing each other’s music, but from different entry points.”

These connective portals reveal themselves in various guises in the otherwise disparate pieces that comprise The Offense Of The Drum. Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda solos over a melange of Colombian, Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms on his glistening “Cuarto de Colores.” Spanish alto saxophonist-vocalist Antonio Lizana infuses flamenco soul into Eric Satie’s “Gnossiene 3 (Tientos),” which he arranged. The hip-hop cadences of Nuyorican poet Christopher “Chilo” Cajigas’ recitation-chant of “They Came,” arranged by Jason Lindner, intersect with D.J. Logic’s turntable sound-painting and an admixture of reggaeton and bomba beats.

The oppressive, martial sound of Japanese taiko drums, set ironically against a fugal form and a bolero cadence, opens the title track, which O’Farrill wrote in response to the gradual suppression of public drum circles in New York City during the mayoral administrations of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. During the second half, liberation beats fuel the orchestra’s rowdy splashes of color.

“Everything Arturo writes is really from the drums, although he writes around melody and conceptual things as well,” ALJO drummer Vince Cherico said. “When we’re learning something in rehearsals, he’ll stop the horns and have the rhythm section—or maybe the conguero or me on drums—play the patterns over and over until it sinks in. He says, ‘This is what you have to play the notes on top of.’”

Vijay Iyer’s brief piano concerto, “The Mad Hatter,” conceived in tribute to O’Farrill’s anything-goes persona, explores, Iyer stated, “compatibilities between Carnatic rhythmic ideas I was thinking about and certain rhythms in clave.” “I see it as similar to Satie and Phillip Glass in the way Vijay explores the idea of unfolding within a context of stasis,” O’Farrill remarks. “It also intrigued me that he would have the audacity to fuck with clave, because he clearly doesn’t come from that world.”

Some band members found “The Mad Hatter” “threatening,” O’Farrill reported. One questioned the necessity of playing the first section in its ascribed 21/8 time signature, to which O’Farrill riposted, “Because we can’t play ‘Oye Como Va’ forever.” The next day the malcontent cell-phoned, “The bridge is a mess, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer, and I’m trying to get to New York.’” O’Farrill answered, “Brother, life isn’t always 4/4—is it?”

“To me, that was a perfect object lesson,” he continued. “If you define your music by constructs that are already in place, you’re a fool. Now, I love 4/4. At my core, I’m a jazz pianist. I may have this big vision of what jazz could become, but my entry point into that conversation was bursting into tears when I first heard Herbie Hancock on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ I wanted to play like Herbie more than anything in the world, because if you could float rhythmically over that bed of swing, like him, you were a complete human being with mastery over time and space. But people don’t understand that when Herbie started playing his shit, someone said, ‘You don’t sound like Red Garland.’”


Already a “mid-level” practitioner of Mozart sonatas and Chopin preludes when he experienced his Hancock epiphany, O’Farrill, then 12, was just beginning to experiment with jazz and improvisational music. By 14, when he joined Local 802, he was playing with experienced New York vets like trumpeter Manny Duran and trombonist-drummer Artie Simmons. “I didn’t know much about harmony or stylistic nuance in jazz, but I had really good keyboard skills, which always seems to impress people,” O’Farrill commented.

You can infer the level of O’Farrill’s teenage skill-set from his father’s contemporaneous piano concerto, “Pianitis,” which Arturo performed during the ‘80s with Machito. “Arturo is scary-virtuoso,” said Iyer. “He has amazing power. He can cut through the ensemble effortlessly, with all those drummers, he has great rhythm, and he’s extremely expressive, very colorful—just a joy to listen to.”

Over the course of three decades, O’Farrill evolved from efflorescent performer to the impresario-maestro of his maturity. Born in Mexico City, where his Havana-born father and Mexican-descended mother moved after the Communist Party consolidated power in Cuba, and a New Yorker since age 5, he experienced “tremendous ambivalence” about his cultural roots. “I thought the music of Chico, Machito and Tito Puente was secondary to jazz in importance and intellectual ability,” he said. “Growing up, the only Hispanics I knew were the school custodian and the basketball star. When I found out that Herbie had come from Bud Powell, I became a Bud Powell freak.” Even so, while immersing himself in bebop and free jazz, O’Farrill began playing on his father’s jingle dates, beginning with a Bumble Bee tuna commercial.

“I knew what a montuno was, but I didn’t understand how to make it work in the clave,” he recalled of that session. “Sal Cuevas was playing bass, and told me that I had to study and get my shit together.” O’Farrill purchased Papo Lucca records, learned the mechanics, but resisted the subtleties. He dropped out of Music and Art High School, worked as a bicycle messenger, and led a peer-grouper sextet called the Untouchables, which in 1978 took a gig upstate “at a hole-in-the-wall bar, playing for beers.” The proprietor notified Carla Bley, who lived down the road. She stopped by, liked what she heard, and soon thereafter hired O’Farrill to play a Carnegie Hall concert, initiating a four-year association.

“I’m much more Carla’s child—or Charles Mingus’ child—than Chico O’Farrill’s child,” O’Farrill said of his aesthetics regarding musical narrative. “Composition was my father’s end-all and be-all. He held jazz on a pedestal. Carla taught me that the notes are secondary to what you want to communicate; it’s not the vehicle, but where the person who’s driving wants to go.”

As the ‘80s progressed, O’Farrill freelanced, worked more frequently on his father’s commercial and creative projects, earned a degree in Classical Performance at Manhattan School of Music, and did extensive fieldwork in the Latin piano tradition with bassist-scholar Andy Gonzalez. “Andy told me that I needed to embrace where I come from, to understand how beautiful it is,” O’Farrill said. “Almost immediately I realized that Latin piano was as sophisticated—maybe even more so—and as difficult to cop as anything Herbie was doing.”

These looking-backward investigations coincided with O’Farrill’s burgeoning appreciation of the depth and quality of Chico O’Farrill’s corpus. “In my twenties, a friend had me listen to ‘Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,’” O’Farrill recounted. “He asked, ‘Have you really heard this?’ I went, ‘Yeah…not really…no.’” He blames the Oedipus Complex. “Whatever legendary musician he was, my father was also prone to the foibles and frailties of fatherhood,” he said. Youthful resentments dissipated during the ‘90s, as père O’Farrill, who died in 2001, experienced an end-of-career renaissance, spurred by the the recordings Pure Emotion, Heart Of A Legend and Carambola, which Arturo music-directed. “I learned how to arrange by looking at my father’s scores. I learned how to compose by listening to my father’s compositions. I learned about voicings and counterpoint. I also learned that my voice was very different than his. It wasn’t just about mimicking, saying, ‘This is a good way to do it.’ It was also about, ‘No, I reject this.’”

“I sensed that Arturo felt very much in Chico’s shadow and fervently desired to establish his own identity,” said Todd Barkan, who produced Chico O’Farrill’s final recordings, as well as The Offense of The Drum and, indeed, Arturo’s 1999 leader debut Bloodline. “But I never saw him be anything less than totally deferential and acquiescent to Chico’s wishes. In his soft-spoken, almost passive way, Chico was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, but he never outwardly expressed his emotions, unlike Arturo, who had to be challenged to control his temper. Arturo has a lot to be proud of in how he’s served his father’s vision and legacy.”

“Chico’s health was failing, so I was thrust into taking over the functions he’d done so well—standing in front of the guys, conducting them and emceeing,” O’Farrill said. “I had to stop being a pianist. He could barely walk, and I worried that he was frail and elderly and might keel over. It’s good that he’s getting his due, but he’s also ambivalent about the attention. At the same time, I had to pursue responsibilities I wasn’t really sure I was prepared for.”


After Wynton Marsalis played “Trumpet Fantasy” with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1996, Arturo approached him for advice. “It interested me that he assembled this orchestra that was building a canon of American jazz, and I asked him—or maybe his assistant—for thoughts on how we could develop a relationship with an institution that might help us create a similar repertory orchestra,” O’Farrill recalled. “A few years later we were playing at a Christmas tree lighting, and Wynton said, out of the blue, ‘I really like your idea, and I want to give you a home at Jazz at Lincoln Center.’”

O’Farrill retains bittersweet feelings about the association, which JALC severed a year after entering its high-maintenance quarters at Columbus Circle. But he prefers to see the break as a blessing in disguise, by which ALJO was afforded the opportunity, as Barkan puts it, “to venture into the world on its own and be its own person.”

“That Wynton would fully open up his platform to us was extraordinarily moving to me,” O’Farrill said. “I learned a lot of lessons from him. He never told us what to do, how to do it, or controlled what we brought to his stage. At the end, I asked him point-blank if we did something wrong. He answered that we represented the House of Swing with great respectability, but that JALC was under great financial duress and would no longer be able to house us.”

One point of common ground is a mutual commitment to grass roots educational initiatives. Another is a decidedly non-preservationist approach to performing the “classic” repertoire that forms the core of each orchestra’s mission, with insistence on technical excellence in matters of instrumentalism, composition and arrangement as a default basis of operations, as is apparent in ALJO’S flawless navigation of the diverse environments of The Offense Of The Drum and 40 Acres and a Burro [Zoho], from 2011. The latter date includes sparkling performances of an Afro-Peruvian original by Gabriel Alegría, two programmatic pieces by O’Farrill, and creative-yet-idiomatic charts—each by a separate arranger—of Pan-American repertoire spanning Argentinian tango (Astor Piazzolla), Brazilian choro (Pixiguinha), Brazilian rhapsody (Hermeto Pascoal), Cuban danzón (Chico O’Farrill), Nuyorican salsa (Oscar Hernandez), and Afro-Caribbean-inflected bebop (Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia”).

Both institutions also operate on the principle that to bring forth new work is as important as the mandate to preserve. “We honor the spirit and tradition that this music was created in, but never try to replicate or play like a museum band,” O’Farrill said. “We are capable of adding to that conversation. For one thing, technical refinements make the instruments sound different than 50 or 60 years ago. Afro-Cuban rhythms like songo hadn’t been invented when much of this music was first played.

“My model since the Lincoln Center days is to look for musicians who are multi-layered, multi-cultured, flexible stylistically and artistically, who understand clave but can also read in 21/8. I like to put a younger musician next to a veteran and hope each will influence the other’s thinking.”

In his wholehearted embrace of the music of the Americas, O’Farrill draws not only on extensive travels through South and Central America and bandstand interaction with musicians from those cultures, but frequent visits to Cuba since 2002.

“The only thing that could make my father cry during his last years was remembrances of his youth,” O’Farrill said. “He rejected an opportunity to return because he received hate mail from Miami’s Cuban-American community. It tore him up. I wondered what could be so special about your birthplace that would cause you such agony in your later years. I learned that the sounds and sights of Cuba indelibly shaped his aesthetic and cultural roots, his sense of harmonic counterpoint and Afro-folkloric counterpoint. The more time I spend in Cuba, the more I realize it’s the land I come from, and also that Cuba is part of Latin America in very concrete ways.”

O’Farrill cited his next recording, a project called “The Conversation Continued,” for which ALJA has commissioned young composers in the United States and in Cuba to imagine what might have happened had the U.S. not imposed an embargo. The program will comprise next season’s Nuevo Musica concert at Symphony Space, joining separate programs curated by Lionel Loueke, exploring the direct African influence in jazz, and by Antonio Sanchez, exploring Mexican jazz and Mexico’s influence in jazz.

Of Mexican descent on his mother’s side, O’Farrill states he can’t “identify more as a Cuban than as a Mexican.” He adds, “I’ve gone back periodically on a regular basis, and all my aunts and most of my family that I know are in Mexico. But at the end of the day, I feel not so much Mexican or Cuban, but I feel Pueblo. I relate to the pace of South American-Latin American life. I like the noise of children in the streets, and dogs running around, and colors and bright sounds, and food smells, and people practicing on terraces. When I first returned to Cuba, I remember walking down the street and thinking, ‘This feels like home.’ I’ve had that feeling in Mexico. I’ve also had that feeling in Lima, and in Cali, and in Santiago.”

More than anything, though, O’Farrill’s need to create on the edge, in an experimental, cross-disciplinary context, emanates from his New York origins. “Everything I do—being a bicycle messenger as a teenager, running a non-profit now, my musical projects—I take great chances,” he said. “What makes it exciting is that it could crash and burn.”



Arturo O’Farrill Blindfold Test (2016):

After earning a “Best Instrumental Composition” at the 2016 Grammys for “The Afro-Latin Jazz Suite” (from Cuba: The Conversation Continues [Motéma]), the 55-year-old pianist-composer-arranger Arturo O’Farrill now holds three such awards for his musical production with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. This was O’Farrill’s first DownBeat Blindfold Test.

Pepe Rivero Big Band
“Gandinga, Mondongo and Epistrophy with Sandunga” (Monk and the Cuban Big Band, Universal, 2013) (Reinier Elizarde “El Negron”, bass (solo); Rivero, piano (solo); Georvis Pico, drums; Raul Gil Antillanos, Manuel Machado, Javier Arevalo, trumpets; Julio Montalvo, Julien Ferrer Riol, Dennis Cuni, trombones; Juan Ramon Callejas, Ernesto Millan, alto saxophone; Bobby Martinez, Segundo Mijarez, tenor saxophone; Rafa Serrano, baritone saxophone)

That’s “Sandunga,” the famous Frank Emilio composition. Is it a Cuban big band? Now it’s “Epistrophy.” The bassist is old school, almost Cachao-like in his solo style, not virtuosic, play-a-lot-of-notes nonsense, but connected to the tumbao. Is it the pianist’s record? Definitely not Chucho. The playing is modern and lean, not histrionic. Elio Villafranca? Was this recorded in Cuba? Here? Overseas?—like the WDR Big Band? Pickup orchestra or real orchestra? Beautiful arrangement, with lots of 16th note syncopations, very difficult to play. Right off the bat I thought a Cuban wrote it—the trumpets, trombones and saxophones are interspersed with high precision, the timba and sound of the swing are authentic, plus, let’s face it, not many jazz musicians know what “Sandunga” is. 4½ stars.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba
“Moore” (XXI Century, 5Passion, 2011) (Rubalcaba, piano; Matt Brewer, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

Aruán Ortiz? David Virelles? Fringey stuff, fresh and new. I admire it. I have no clue. You can’t play with that much freedom unless you’re really listening. This person is not a replicator, is playing intuitively, in touch with the ebb-and-flow second by second, creating a holistic experience, very in tune with themselves as a human being. It’s extremely well-played, but not facility for facility’s sake. 5 stars. Gonzalo has redefined everything he does, which is extraordinarily courageous when you have huge success early on in the game.

Sullivan Fortner
“Passepied” (Aria, Impulse!, 2015) (Fortner, piano; Tivon Pennicott, soprano saxophone; Aidan Carroll, bass; Joe Dyson, drums)

It’s pleasurable and nice to listen to, but didn’t challenge me in terms of chords or syncopation. Not that things have to be challenging; it’s stupid to make that an aesthetic reason to listen to something. Good composition; I liked the ending. The piece sounds young and studied. It didn’t sound easy to play. The pianist is very accomplished, a lot of contrapuntal skill. 3½ stars.

Fabian Almazan
“Jambo” (Rhizome, ArtistShare/Blue Note, 2014) (Almazan, piano; string quartet [Sara Caswell, 1st violin, Tomoko Omura, 2nd violin; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello]; Linda Oh, bass; Henry Cole, drums; Yosvany Terry, chekeré; Mauricio Herrera, batá)

Histrionic. But there’s a tumbador in there. String writing, contemporary language, Cuban-based with a conga part, an awareness of Afro-folkloric layering. When it dips into the harmonic world, the chromaticism is almost Romantic, but there are flourishes, clusters and very avant-garde writing. It’s interesting that the piano is mixed down and the drums are loud—the artist wants the composition to be center. I’ll assume the pianist went to ISO or whichever conservatory, but the cognizant use of rhythm shows he’s spent time playing rhythm-based music, and has a large repertoire of contemporary-sounding sounds, techniques and voicings. 5 stars.

Pedro Giraudo Big Band
“Push Gift” (Cuentos, Zoho, 2015) (Giraudo, bass; John Ellis, tenor saxophone solo; Alejandro Aviles, Todd Bashore, Luke Batson, Ellis, Carl Maraghi, saxes and winds; Jonathan Powell, Miki Hirose, Mat Jodrell, flugelhorn, Josh Deutsch, trumpets; Ryan Keberle, Mike Fahie, Mark Miller, Nate Mayland, trombones; Claudio Ragazzi, guitar; Jess Jurkovic, piano; Franco Pinna, drums, Paulo Stagnaro, cajon)

There’s something very Argentinian about this, and Spanish at the same time. It starts out with the cajon, a very site-specific rhythm, then a beautiful, classically written fugue in the introduction. The voicings are well-done. Not a lot of chance-taking or strange harmony—no avant-garde-isms. Straight-ahead, lyrical music. I’d say Guillermo Klein or Emilio Solla. Neither? It has Guillermo’s vibe. I’ve played with the sax player, who plays beautifully, but I’m blanking on the name. 5 stars.

Osmany Paredes
“Perla Marina/Longina” (Trio Time, Menduvia, 2013) (Paredes, piano)

Lovely playing, elegant and simple, but I have issues with the constant arpeggiation in the left hand. Every other chord is rolled. For a minute, I thought of Tete Montoliu. I find that sometimes we pianists, instead of really playing, arpeggiate every chord in the left hand—maybe it’s an affectation or reflex. 4 stars.

Edsel Gómez
“The Chant” (Road to Udaipur, Zoho, 2015) (Gomez, piano; Areismar Alex Ayala, bass; Bruce Cox, drums; Felipe Lamoglia, tenor saxophone; Roberto Pitre Vázquez, flute; Fabio Tagliaferri, viola; Walmir Gil, flugelhorn)

Alfredo Rodriguez? This is very Cuban, despite the odd meter. Very modern. [clusters] That’s great. Sometimes Cuban music is divided into Afro-folkloric seriousness or heavy-duty hyper-virtuosity. It’s elegantly played, and the rhythm section is good. It’s fun, tongue-in-cheek, clever, and in command of its elements. 4 stars.

Danilo Pérez
“Light Echo/Dolores” (Children of the Light, Mack Avenue, 2015) (Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

Is it an older record? The sound is very compressed. I know the pianist—the language and the approach to improvisation—but I’m not placing it. The pianist is not out to prove a technical issue. It’s entry-point improvisation, where you start an idea and it flowers into fruition. A lot of integrity. 4 stars. Danilo works out his ideas through his fingers, not just playing what he knows. They don’t sound like they do when they’re playing Wayne Shorter!

Emilio Solla y la Inestable de Brooklyn
“Raro” (Second Half. ) (Solla, piano; Pablo Aslan, bass; Eric Doob, drums; John Ellis, Tim Armacost, saxophone and winds; Alex Norris, trumpet; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Meg Okura, violin; Victor Prieto, accordion)

Pablo Ziegler? Pablo Aslan? I’ve heard this; I don’t remember the record. Ah, Emilio Solla, Y La Inestable de Brooklyn. This was up for the Grammy the year we won it, and it’s extraordinary. This is Emilio at his best. Like a lot of his writing, it has a cinematic edge, with a narrative arc and characters in the music. Emilio has a large story to tell; nothing he writes is simple. When you can be a storyteller as a composer and improvising artist, that’s pretty huge. 5 stars.


Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):

TP: We’re at Birdland, and all together for the Downbeat conversation. I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie. I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music. And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years. And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears. It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano. It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation. It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.

PALMIERI: Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz. That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. We did three CDs, “Palmas,” “Arete” and “El Vortex.” That was the move. We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz. What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra. Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra. That’s where you have “El Rumbero Del Piano.” After “El Rumbero Del Piano,” which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did “Masterpiece.” But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned. Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig. He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone. That’s where it started. Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta. We did the first album, LA PERFECTA, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received. Then on the second CD for Concord, RITMO CALIENTE, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.

TP: You wrote new music as well. Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion? Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?

PALMIERI: Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there. The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting. That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on RITMO CALIENTE.

TP: You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom. This is dance-driven music. But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more. I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage. Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?

O’FARRILL: It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left. That’s one of the problems. In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls. Also, I think this is true. People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.


O’FARRILL: They’re not taught to dance. The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance. So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it. It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs. We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art. I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!

TP: When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!

O’FARRILL: You can’t listen to those records without moving.

PALMIERI: Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers. To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense. And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.

TP: It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo. A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers. What were the first principles for your compositions? Rhythmic? Harmonic? A combination of both?

PALMIERI: At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s. It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them. At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds. How they were able to get you! I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there. Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite. There were reasons. There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax. That’s what made it interesting for me.

O’FARRILL: That’s an interesting word — “tension.” When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.

TP: And intellectually challenging.

O’FARRILL: Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension. The dancing. The groove. There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove. I mean, the groove is the factor, too.

PALMIERI: Thank you.

TP: Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah. As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto. For two years. Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in. But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later. In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui. In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban. The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening. So I was able to capture that also. After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years. By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.

TP: So you had a long apprenticeship. Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere. You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.

PALMIERI: Oh yeah. And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…

O’FARRILL: I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians. You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is. To get that concept, you have to play it. I’m the kind of person who learns by doing. I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it. I have to do. So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.

TP: What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?

O’FARRILL: Conga. That’s it.

TP: And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?

O’FARRILL: It’s difficult on my hands. As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.

TP: You’d better pick up some sticks.

O’FARRILL: Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers. But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section. A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing. But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding. And as a player, you begin to pick up on things. You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo. It’s very important stuff.

TP: Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root. Arturo is a very florid player. You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…

O’FARRILL: I have to say that’s true. But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.” And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition. For a minute there, I had his groove. It felt so good! Florid, whatever. But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.

TP: Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.


TP: And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later. You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.

PALMIERI: Yes, I never comprehended it. Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing. That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader. What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance? But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.

O’FARRILL: See, I came from a different background. It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing. My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that. You know how kids are. You reject what your father does. So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played. It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.

TP: What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had. What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music? Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?

O’FARRILL: It’s very different. There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it. You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity. First of all, it’s a different technique. Your hands have to move differently. It’s not florid. It’s not Bud Powell. It’s a different concept. And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense. Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.

TP: Elaborate on that.

O’FARRILL: Well, Rene Hernandez. Peruchin. That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes. You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch. And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school. Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand. So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that. And I had to grow up. I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music. Because it’s who I am.

PALMIERI: And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico. And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes. When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that. Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras. So then, it was quite difficult for me. And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things. Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…

TP: You had to play loud.

PALMIERI: That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in. So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style. It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.

TP: Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well? Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.

O’FARRILL: Ideally, you want to blur that line. You don’t want to have that big a changeover. What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play. As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.” It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.” Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers! So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me. But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake. I don’t think you can make it. I think it really has to come from your soul. So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.

TP: Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing. Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?

PALMIERI: What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant. For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.” For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that. That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing. Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play. I still keep working on it and keep developing it.

O’FARRILL: Eddie plays with a lot of texture. Eddie plays with what I call sound waves. He plays with the texture of the piano. It is orchestral.

TP: I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do. Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”


TP: So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing? What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?

PALMIERI: To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for. For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists. So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about. And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way. That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own. And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted. So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.

TP: Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?

PALMIERI: No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.

TP: How many compositions have you published over forty years?

PALMIERI: I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.

TP: And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?

PALMIERI: Well, there’s different books. I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book. Then we have the Latin Jazz. Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.

TP: So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.

PALMIERI: I’m bringing some of them back.

TP: Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana. In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months. So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz. And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire. So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play? How did he make his choices?

O’FARRILL: He chose pieces that were suggested to him. There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years. Chico has rewritten a lot of music. So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece. It’s smoking. But it has its roots there. I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948. Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s. Some of that stuff is classic.

TP: The things he did for Norman Granz?

O’FARRILL: “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple. It’s not cluttered. It’s linear. So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.

TP: Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience. You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers. Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s. Very different perspectives on similar roots.

O’FARRILL: Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too. My father didn’t play anything.

TP: He was a trumpet player.

O’FARRILL: Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up. A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives. Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform. Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!” For him, it was an easier way to be a musician. It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.

TP: Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it. I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!

PALMIERI: Right, Charlie. And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras. My brother was nine years older. We had no other brother, no other sister. It was just Charlie and I. So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano. He really went at it! That certainly came into me. I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road. My brother was quite an exceptional player. He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I. I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before. But Charlie had. So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.

TP: Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition. How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it. Is there anything you can say about that?

O’FARRILL: There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras. People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it. I just believe that musicians are organic. They bring to the music a whole nother vibe. There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat! But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important. Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed? Hell, no.

TP: Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?

O’FARRILL: It’s a daunting task. And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book! Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.

PALMIERI: Yes, I remember. We had the two orchestras, I think.

O’FARRILL: The two orchestras side-by-side. How do you choose? That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop. There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon. Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out. That’s more important than the position or the institution. And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines. That’s what it’s about.

PALMIERI: One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.

O’FARRILL: We played in Pori. They LOVE his music in Finland.

PALMIERI: And I certainly congratulate Arturo on his position with Lincoln Center…

O’FARRILL: I just want to say one more thing, because it’s important. Again, Jazz at Lincoln Center is a huge institution, and it’s important to me personally that Latin music be taken seriously, that it be given the weight that it merits, that it be accorded the position it deserves. That’s all I’m trying to do.

TP: One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own. So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo. I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.

PALMIERI: For me, it’s on the rhythm section side. But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended. I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it. How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly. It’s a constant challenge.

TP: How has musicianship changed over the years?

PALMIERI: They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared. And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players. Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree. I have to say that. Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany. But now we have incredible soloists. You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra. I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.

TP: Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music. How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole? It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music. Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?

O’FARRILL: I think so. I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now. You really do have a wide variety of styles. You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena. That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large. I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz. And it’s still Latin. It still comes from our corner of the world. But it’s very much more open, very flexible.

The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz. I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz. I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians. Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music. They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz. I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.

TP: It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.

O’FARRILL: Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars. Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.

TP: Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands? You do have steady personnel. How do you see the musicianship?

PALMIERI: It’s tremendously rounded now. As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s. Now it’s Afro-World. And now it’s all over. The talent just keeps pouring in. On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel. So it’s not as varied as it was before. I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras. But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel. We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us. But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now. They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.

TP: In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it? Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?

PALMIERI: Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings. I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it. The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.

TP: Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work. You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad. All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.

PALMIERI: Right. But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra. When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.

TP: Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel. Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.

O’FARRILL: There’s no substitute for having a regular gig. Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players. They understand how to phrase. It’s very subtle, it’s very different. You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music. You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”

PALMIERI: That was his form of identification.

O’FARRILL: That’s a very Victor Paz thing. But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing. I am very lucky, very blessed. I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.

TP: Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all? Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been to Africa. As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers. Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.

O’FARRILL: We went to South Africa. I’ve been there several times. The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…

TP: My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.

O’FARRILL: You better believe it! Talk about colonial imperialism! I was amazed. I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.

TP: Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?

PALMIERI: It was Cuban. But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African. But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba. That’s where I really centered my education on.

TP: How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?

PALMIERI: I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns. They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance. That’s where I come in.

TP: So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.

PALMIERI: Exactly.

TP: Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life? Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?

O’FARRILL: He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba. Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music. I think it influenced him greatly. That kind of music gets in your blood. It kind of becomes a part of you. I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos. Man, I started bawling! I was weeping, man. Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys. That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations. It has to be folkloric. It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots. It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures. You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz. Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!

TP: But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.

O’FARRILL: I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable. Anybody can write these rhythms. It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.

TP: But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition? Were you writing it down or learning by doing?

PALMIERI: Well, naturally, by listening. That was the main direction. And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records. Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening! Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time. Conjunto meant without the saxophone. So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide. Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings. The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.

TP: Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience? As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.

PALMIERI: Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers. That’s something that gives you balance. It’s absolutely wonderful. But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts. On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling. But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.

O’FARRILL: You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid. To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!

TP: And you play for them a lot.

O’FARRILL: Oh, I do all the time. When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it. You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes. But that’s the real deal. That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.

TP: But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical. A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing. So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.

O’FARRILL: Yes. There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.” A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is. My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument. So what?” That’s a small part of it.

TP: Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?

PALMIERI: I haven’t been writing since the last CD. I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.” But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.

TP: Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?

PALMIERI: Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me. I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded. I have it at home. But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.
TP: Do you make use of the new technology?

PALMIERI: No. I haven’t been able to comprehend that. I leave it alone!

O’FARRILL: I can’t make heads or tails. I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper. I can’t cope with it at all.

TP: And how much composing and arranging do you do?

O’FARRILL: I do quite a bit. And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.

TP: Is it project-oriented for you?

O’FARRILL: It’s always project-oriented. For me, deadlines are crucial. I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever. So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming. My father was very much the same way. Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!

PALMIERI: Amazing.

O’FARRILL: He would do it transcribed. The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way. It’s very different for me. But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.

TP: For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.

PALMIERI: The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it. For me, it’s the feel of the instrument. That’s why the keyboard was put on top. I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard. I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through. It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.

O’FARRILL: That’s rare.

PALMIERI: But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.

TP: So it’s to hear yourself. To hear yourself think.

O’FARRILL: The clarity.

PALMIERI: Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band. The rhythm section is quite heavy also. And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.

TP: Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands. There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra. Is the repertoire expanding for it?

O’FARRILL: The repertoire is expanding.

TP: And where are you getting repertoire?

O’FARRILL: Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.

TP: With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.

O’FARRILL: Absolutely.

TP: How are you conceiving that? Where are you getting material from? How big is the book now?

O’FARRILL: Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources. For example, the Machito stuff I can’t find. It’s irreplaceable. The scores are gone. So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of material that exists.

TP: How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician? It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.

O’FARRILL: It’s funny. I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues. There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies. I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you. But I care about the music. I have to do it. I CARE about this music. So I’ve been put in this position. I’m very happy to do it. It’s because this music is vital. It’s very important. But bandleading is difficult at times. It’s a very strange position. People don’t understand. You’re dealing with Lincoln Center, and they start a Latin Jazz Orchestra. That’s a huge deal. The name of Lincoln Center opens doors all over the world. When Wynton approached me to do this… It was born out of an idea that I had. Ten years ago I said to Wynton, “Man, we’ve got to have an orchestra that plays the canon,” and I guess it just sat in his brain for a while, but he came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “Let’s do it.” But it’s still a huge responsibility. Culturally, if this thing doesn’t take off in a major way, it’s going to be a huge faux pas for Lincoln Center. I feel like this music has to be performed.

TP: How big is the book for that orchestra?

O’FARRILL: It’s running 30-40 pieces.

TP: Done much touring with the band?

O’FARRILL: We’re going to do a tour in March. We just got signed to a new agency, and we’re going to be touring in March.

TP: But to return to the question, in what ways has being a bandleader influenced your musicianship and your vision of music and sense of possibility?

O’FARRILL: Certainly it’s expanded me as a musician. Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship. That takes a lot of skill. So all that has honed my musical skills. It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable. I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.

TP: So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.

O’FARRILL: Yes. And not as a pianist. As a musical concept. As a mind. As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.

TP: Eddie, forty years ago, playing gigs at the Palladium, with that whole cast of characters who populated it, would you have envisioned an institution like Lincoln Center establishing an Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra? What does it mean to you?

PALMIERI: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that we have the orchestra to represent this music at an institution like Lincoln Center with the blessing of a Wynton Marsalis. It presents a challenge for all the musicians in this orchestra, in writing for it, and to their preparation, their musicianship. So I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I never thought something like that would happen, and I’m elated that we have it.


TP: Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.

BRIAN: How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint. I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much. But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it. The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music. I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities. The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle. Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?

PALMIERI: Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry. Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.” Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.

BRIAN: You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.

PALMIERI: Right. What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra. That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional. But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.

BRIAN: Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz. If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities. Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?

O’FARRILL: I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City. It’s another branch of the roots. Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time. I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature. You’re right. The roots of improvisation are there for both musics. There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.

BRIAN: I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.” That America means just the residents of the United States of America.

O’FARRILL: That’s very narrow-minded.

BRIAN: Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out. The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.

O’FARRILL: I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music. Guess what? New Orleans is the Caribbean!

BRIAN: I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s. It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. All these things are very much together. So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.

TP: One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up. A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate. With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.

BRIAN: I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms than he did in 1970 or 1980.

O’FARRILL: Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.

BRIAN: Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing. Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around. A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is. And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.

O’FARRILL: Well, that’s the $64,000 question. What is jazz?

BRIAN: What is jazz. Or what is swing? I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.

O’FARRILL: Oh yeah. I have to agree with you there. Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music. Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.

BRIAN: And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together. I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.

O’FARRILL: Yeah. It might be a lost art today! I would add to what Brian was saying. I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy. Human beings love to categorize things. They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not. The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.

TP: What did your father think about it?

O’FARRILL: I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he looked at life as a musical challenge. The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect. It’s basically an economic issue. To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics. I think my father didn’t care. He was just a consummate musician. He just wanted to write music. He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito. He just loved what he did. I don’t think he saw one or the other.

BRIAN: Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing. It’s about improvisation. It’s always about wanting to extend something. I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.

TP: We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.

BRIAN: Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz. A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music. The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Eddie Palmieri

For Nasheet Waits’ 50th birthday, a Jazziz Profile from 2017 and Nasheet’s Max Roach homage for in 2009

To mark the milestone fiftieth birthday of the great drummer Nasheet Waits, here are a couple of pieces — at the top is a feature piece I had an opportunity to write about him for Jazziz at the end of 2017; below it is an article that I commissioned Nasheet to do for the great, late-lamented ‘zine back 2009, where Nasheet selected and discussed a dozen of his favorite tracks by Max Roach, who a key mentor and influence in his life.


Nasheet Waits Jazziz Article (#1):

It was midweek in early February, the eve of a snowstorm, and Nasheet Waits, internationally known as the drummer with Jason Moran’s Bandwagon for the last 17 years and counting, was playing before a sparse audience at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery with a quartet led by 19-year-old alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, comprising 20-year-old bassist Daryl Johns and 21-year-old pianist Jeremy Corren. It could have been the most innocuous of gigs. But Waits, who is 45, devoted full attention to interacting with partners young enough to be his children. Sight-reading the rubato, ametric passages and shifting time signatures in Wilkins’ charts, he interpreted the melodies on the fly, unleashing a stream of undulating beat permutations while eliciting precisely calibrated textures from each component of the drumkit within the flow.

“They were incredible,” Waits said the morning after. “What comes out of their instruments is very mature.” He became sold on Wilkins and Johns after hearing them play standards in trio with twentyish drummer Jeremy Dutton two weeks earlier at Smalls, down the block from the Village Vanguard, where Waits had just finished his evening’s duties with Christian McBride’s open-ended New Jawn Quartet.

“They were expanding them to the edge of what you could still identify as the tune,” said Waits, who had shared Iridium’s bandstand with Johns on a Macy Gray gig in January. “It reminded me of the Bandwagon’s approach to stretching and bending and refracting the foundation. I thought, ‘Oh, these young brothers have the same kind of spirit; it will be nice.’ You have to start accepting who you are age-wise.”

The encounter underlined Waits’ status as a first-call among his generation for multiple bandleaders, famous or obscure, who want a drummer to render a 360-degree range of styles with authoritative execution, high musicality, imaginative intention and inflamed-soul spirit. During the ’90s, Antonio Hart, Stanley Cowell and Hamiet Bluiett were the most prominent leaders who recognized Waits’ potential; in the first half of the aughts, in addition to Bandwagon commitments, Waits frequently played with the Andrew Hill Sextet and Big Band and the Fred Hersch Trio. But during the past decade, he’s become a ubiquitous presence on projects led by upper echelon shape-shifters and speculative improvisors. Since 2011, Waits has toured and recorded with David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, most recently documented on Blues For Memo (Doublemoon). Into the Silence (ECM) is his fourth CD with trumpeter Avishai Cohen; Quiver (ECM) is his third with trumpeter Ralph Alessi; Incantations (Clean Feed) is his fifth with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. Then, too, during the last 15 months, Waits’ special sauce infuses pianist Ethan Iverson’s old-school piano trio recital, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross), with Ron Carter on bass; alto saxophonist’s Logan Richardson fusion-esque Shift (Blue Note); alto saxophonist Michael Attias’ outer-partials opus Nerve Dance (Clean Feed); and pianist Sophia Domanech’s programmatic Alice’s Evidence (Marge).

Recently, Waits contributed his interpretative mojo to Abu Sadiya (Accords Croisses), on which he, French-Tunisian woodwindist Yacine Boularès and cellist Vincent Segal mold the Malian-descended Stambeli music of Tunisia into original works. A collaboration of longer standing is Tarbaby, an experimentally oriented trio with pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Eric Revis whose four recordings since 2009 include discursive encounters with Nicholas Payton, Ambrose Akinmusire and Oliver Lake. New Jawn Quartet’s prospective spring recording for Mack Avenue will reflect the freewheeling interactivity that McBride and Waits achieved throughout their week at the Vanguard.

“I love Nasheet’s intensity, that he’s a conversational drummer without being obtrusive, which is a fine line to walk,” McBride said. “Playing with him is an exciting feeling, like running down a street when a dog is chasing you.”

Moran deployed a different metaphor to express a similar observation. “The way Nasheet’s sensibility moves on the kit is unsettling,” he said. “He can make the ground that might be lush soil turn into ice very fast. You think you have your footing, then all of a sudden it becomes very slippery, and that next step you take, all of a sudden you’re sliding. That can be infuriating to a soloist. I heard that the first time we played together, and it’s intrigued me ever since.

“Any bandleader who calls Nasheet is not looking for anything light. They want to feel the fire underneath them. They want to feel the rhythm really moving. Also, most importantly, when you write music and hand it to a drummer, you are looking for them to fill in every gap you left in the score, to make all the decisions that you aren’t able to make as a non-drummer. He’s figured out the tools to utilize to make people’s average shit sound awesome. That’s what great drummers do.”

“Sometimes you play things that aren’t necessarily what the person wanted, but it’s what the music needed,” Waits said. “I have more resources now than I used to. I always had a creative connection to the music, but I wasn’t always capable of folding that creativity into every situation because I didn’t have the capability. I’ve become more versed in the music’s continuum, and it’s strengthened my foundation. I’ve put a lot more tools in my shed.”


Shortly before New Jawn Quartet entered the Vanguard, Waits had played several dates in Europe with his group, Equality, with alto saxophonist Darius Jones, pianist Aruán Ortiz, and bassist Mark Helias, who perform on his 2016 leader album, Between Nothingness and Infinity (Laborie Jazz). He recorded it eight years after his leader debut, Equality (Fresh Sound), with Richardson, Moran and Bandwagon bassist Tarus Mateen. Both recitals reflect, as Helias puts it, “an unspoken imperative that we’re going to stretch out and take chances. Nasheet is most interested in where a piece is going, how we can expand it from the inside out to make something happen musically.”

One of Waits’ four originals on the new release is “Hesitation.” “It refers to my hesitancy to even ‘lead’ a band,” he says. “The way our industry works, you’re viewed differently as a leader than as a sideman. It took a while for me to become comfortable with feeling I was ready, although Andrew Hill had encouraged me to start my own thing.”

He seized the moment in 2007, while touring with Eddie Gomez for an Italian promoter who suggested Waits organize a band to play some dates. “I knew the promoter’s roster, and I thought a certain aspect of music was under-represented,” he says. “Everything I was seeing was very technical—well-executed, but missing a certain rawness and spontaneity. I felt Jason did that, Tarbaby did it, and that this could be my opportunity to do it.”

After the 2008 recording, Waits did sporadic hits with Equality, some with Moran, Mateen and Richardson. Helias entered the mix, and Cowell, Craig Taborn, David Virelles and then Ortiz played piano at different times. As Waits participated more and more in Murray’s projects, Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife, who runs the 3D Family production company, offered to help him find outlets for his sonic vision.

“I was reticent,” Waits says. “I felt sated in terms of my creativity. But I heard Darius, and enjoyed the emotive quality of his sound, so I decided, ‘Yeah, let’s work on some stuff.’ One thing led to another, and once we got this contract we started doing things overseas. This band definitely has a collective spirit. We’ve had quite a few special moments. I want to be part of creating as many situations like that as possible for the rest of my life.”

Waits traces the consistent imperative to exist as a creative being—to take risks, to make mistakes and play out of them—to “the people who mentored and taught me, my father first and foremost.” He’s referring to Frederick Waits, who worked with blues and rhythm-and-blues groups as a youngster in Jim Crow era Mississippi, before moving to Detroit, where he became a Motown house drummer. He moved to New York in the late 1960s, and ascended the ladder, accumulating a c.v. that boasted work with Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Morgan, Richard Davis, McCoy Tyner, Hill, Cowell, Donald Byrd, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and Max Roach’s M’Boom.

Waits lives with his wife and four-year-old son in the apartment he grew up in at Westbeth, the venerable artists’ complex on the western edge of Greenwich Village where his parents were original tenants, sharing the space with luminaries like Gil Evans and Merce Cunningham, along with numerous painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and actors. During childhood and adolescence, his main passions were baseball (he played shortstop) and the drums, on which he practiced assiduously to high-octane jazz recordings like Lee Morgan’s “The Beehive,” from Live at the Lighthouse, fueled by Mickey Roker. He played timbales and drum solos in an excellent middle school band that included best friends Eric McPherson and Abraham Burton, now esteemed jazz pros; Rashied Ali’s son, Idris, who played trumpet; and Sam Rivers’ granddaughters Aisha and Tamara, who played clarinet. At 11, Waits recalls, he accompanied his father to a gig in Connecticut with Jackie McLean, and was allowed to sit in for a tune. For his 16th birthday, he asked his father take him to Sweet Basil, a few blocks away from Westbeth, to hear Cedar Walton, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins.

“I was there at the inception of hip-hop, but it was filtered through Gil Evans and all this other stuff my father was involved in,” Waits says. “It wasn’t that it was jazz; I was attracted to the way it made me feel. It was never presented to me that I had to approach jazz in a certain way, but a cultural importance was placed upon it—if you were going to participate you had to have a respect and reverence for the music.

“Greenwich Village was wild, a lot more diverse—culturally, economically, racially—than it is now. I could say that it translated to being attracted to a certain raw quality in what I do, but also in seeing validity in a lot of different styles of music. It’s more about the culture to me, and the culture can be expressed in a lot of different ways.”


Waits’ mother, Hakima, died when he was 13. He enrolled at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, from which he matriculated to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, where he studied history and psychology, while tabling his involvement with the drums. But when his father died in November, 1989, Nasheet returned to New York so that his 9-year-old brother would not have to be uprooted. For the next decade, they lived together at Westbeth, given unconditional support by family and friends like Max Roach, Roach’s M’Boom colleague Dr. Fred King (Waits’ godfather), and Carvin, who opened their homes and hearts. So did McPherson and Burton, who invited Waits to McPherson’s weekly gig at Augie’s, an uptown bar where other stars-in-the-making like McBride, Brad Mehldau, Jesse Davis and Peter Bernstein came to play. In this environment, Waits rekindled his passion for music-making.

“I didn’t read, and I hadn’t practiced rudiments, like doing a paradiddle or a double-stroke roll,” Waits says. “On my first gig at Augie’s, they called the blues and I didn’t know what they were talking about; they called Rhythm changes and I was like, ‘What does that mean?’” He set about systematically transforming raw talent into knowledge, abetting the process through formal lessons with Carvin; classes at Long Island University’s strong jazz program; and ample face time with Roach, who responded to Waits’ questions with cryptic, koan-like answers. Gradually, Waits assimilated dicta that his father had impressed upon him, particularly the notion that “the sound you pull out of the drums is the first impression you make to people who are listening.”

“My father never forced any of his opinions upon me, but let me discover these things for myself,” Waits says. “He, my father and Michael would always tell me to start my own thing. ‘Ok, this is the way they did it; now how are you going to do it, what are you going to incorporate?’ The breadth of their work was wide, and their hearts were open. They were practicing on the bandstand every time they hit. They had no limitations, and that became part of my lexicon.”

Roach’s insistence on “always sounding like he’s on the edge,” on “never playing it safe,” will remain core to the default basis of operations that animates Waits, his partners in the Bandwagon, and the other company he keeps. “Part of what’s helped us stay together so long is that I try to keep finding other frameworks for us,” Moran says. “It could be conceptual frameworks, where we work on how slow can we play, how long can a space be between one note and the next. I could ask Nasheet to do a press roll for 15 minutes on a piece, and then not have him do it during the performance. It’s to have us think about these processes and how we work together. These things give us new edges to jump off of.”

Waits concurs wholeheartedly. “If you’re always accessing something that you know, you’re limiting what you can learn and the music that can be created,” he says. “Sometimes it can be a disaster, but out of those disasters is a lot of beauty. The way Bandwagon evolved is optimal. It reflects being inside the music and trying to release yourself within that, becoming the music, as opposed to trying to control it or make it do something. To play a tune that sounds good the same way all the time is definitely not the goal. We’re always looking for the sweet spot, but to find that sweet spot you might have to tread through deep and murky waters where you don’t achieve it. The search is lauded as much as the accomplishment. Look at and approach the music like it’s putty in your hands. Make it elastic. Put it in a ball, throw it up against the wall, take it off, see what’s imprinted on it. That can be done in infinite ways, so there’s never an answer. That spirit lends itself to being fresh all the time. Immanuel and his guys were approaching it that way. Most of the musicians I’ve surrounded myself with have that same spirit.”



Nasheet Waits (Max Roach Dozens for

In an era when drummers consider it a default performance practice to navigate a global template of rhythmic expression, it is important to remember that Max Roach (1924-2007), whose eighty-sixth birthday anniversary came along last week, is the single most important figure in this development.

Just ask the drummers who knew him, as I did a few years back when Downbeat gave me the honor of writing a lengthy obituary. “Before Max, all the drummers, even the great ones like Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa or Chick Webb, approached soloing on the drumset from more of a rudimental and snare drum concept,” said Billy Hart. “Max was the first one to take the rudiments and spread them melodically around the whole drumset—bass drum, tom-tom, snare drum, cymbal.”

“Max was adamant that it was just as important for him to know the form and melody as everybody else,” Kenny Washington added. “He took independence between two hands and two feet to the next level.”

Roach was never content to recreate the past, which he associated with segregation times, and he spent the second half of his career in perpetual forward motion, determinedly bridging stylistic categories. “Max may have used 30 signature things, but he used them in so many different ways,” Jeff “Tain” Watts remarked. “One piece of vocabulary could function as a solo idea, a melody for a solo drum piece. He’d take the same fragment of melodic material and take it out of time, use it like splashing colors on a canvas or whatever, or use it in an avant-garde context, like his duets with Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton. That cued me not to be so compartmentalized with certain stuff for soloing and other stuff for something else, but just to use vocabulary—your own vocabulary—to serve many functions.”

Born on Jan. 10, 1924, in Newland, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn, Roach was the first jazz musician to treat the drum set both functionally and as an autonomous instrument of limitless artistic possibility. As a teenager, Roach paid close attention to “drummers who could solo”—Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb, Cozy Cole. Toward the end of his studies at Boys High School, he began riding the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem for late-night sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s uptown House, where the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Dizzy Gillespie, all Roach’s elders by several years, explored alternative approaches to the status quo.

By 1942, they had reharmonized blues forms and Tin Pan Alley tunes, changing keys, elasticizing the beat and setting hellfire tempos that discouraged weaker players from taking the bandstand when serious work was taking place. Before World War II ended, the new sound was sufficiently established to have a name—bebop.

Thoroughly conversant in how to push a big band—he hit the road with Benny Carter in 1944 and 1945, and filled in for Sonny Greer with Duke Ellington in early 1942—with four-to-the-floor on the bass drum and tricks with the sticks, Roach made his first record in 1943 with Coleman Hawkins, and played on Hawkins’ ur-bebop 1944 session with Gillespie on which “Woody ’N’ You” debuted. But as Charlie Parker’s primary drummer in 1944 and 1945 and from 1947–49, Roach developed a technique that allowed him to keep pace with and enhance Parker’s ferocious velocities and ingenious rhythmic displacements. His famous polyrhythmic solo on Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 foreshadowed things to come in the next decade.

During the early 1950s, Roach studied composition at Manhattan School of Music and co-founded, with Charles Mingus, Debut Records—one of the first musician-run record companies. In 1954, he formed the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet, in which he elaborated his concept of transforming the drum set into what he liked to call the multiple percussion set, treating each component as a unique instrument, while weaving his patterns into an elaborate, kinetic design. After the death of Brown and pianist Richie Powell in 1956, he battled depression and anger, but continued to lead a succession of bands with saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, George Coleman, Stanley Turrentine, Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, and Gary Bartz, trumpeters Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Richard Williams, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Tolliver, tubist Ray Draper, and pianists Mal Waldron and Stanley Cowell.

Roach also performed as a sideman on such essential ’50s recordings as Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and The Freedom Suite, as well as important dates by Herbie Nichols, J.J. Johnson and Little. He interpolated African and Afro-Caribbean strategies into his flow, incorporated orchestral percussion into his drum set and worked compositionally with odd meters, polyrhythm and drum tonality. He gave equal weight to both a song’s melodic contour and its beat. “Conversations,” from 1953, was his first recorded drum solo; by the end of the decade, he had developed a body of singular compositions for solo performance built on elemental but difficult-to-execute rudiments upon which he improvised with endless permutations.

He continued to expand his scope through the ’60s. A long-standing member of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church, he incorporated the voice—both the singular instrument of his then-wife, Abbey Lincoln, and also choirs—into his presentation. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he used his music as a vehicle for struggle, expressing views on the zeitgeist in both the titles of his albums and compositions—“We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” (commissioned by the NAACP for the approaching centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation), “Garvey’s Ghost,” “It’s Time”—and his approach to performing them.

Roach joined the University of Massachusetts, Amherst faculty in the early ’70s, and seemed to use the post as a platform from which to broaden his expression. In 1971, he joined forces with a cohort of New York-based percussionists to form M’Boom, a cooperative nine-man ensemble that addressed a global array of skin-on-skin and mallet instruments; and in the early ’80s he formed the Max Roach Double Quartet, blending his group, the Max Roach Quartet with the Uptown String Quartet, with his daughter, Maxine Roach. He recorded with a large choir and with a symphony orchestra. A 1974 duet recording with Abdullah Ibrahim launched a series of extraordinary musical conversations with speculative improvisers Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp; these sparked subsequent encounters with pianists Connie Crothers and Mal Waldron, and a 1989 meeting with his early mentor Gillespie.

He also reached out to artists representing other musical styles and artistic genres—playing drums for break dancers and turntablists in 1983; collaborating with Amiri Baraka on a musical about Harlem numbers king Bumpy Johnson, and with Sonia Sanchez on drum-freestyle improv; improvising to video images from Kit Fitzgerald, to moves from dancer Bill T. Jones, and to freestyle verse from his nephew, Fred “Fab Five Freddie” Braithwaite, who conjured the epigram, “The man with the fresh approach, Max Roach.” He scored plays by Shakespeare and Sam Shepard, composed for choreographer Alvin Ailey, and set up transcultural hybrids with a Japanese kodo ensemble, gitano flamenco singers, and an ad hoc gathering of Jewish and Arab percussionists in Israel.

No drummer born after the Baby Boom knew Roach more intimately than Nasheet Waits, whose father, the excellent drummer Frederick Douglas “Freddie” Waits (1940-1989), was an original member of M’Boom. Nasheet attended high school with Roach’s twin daughters, Ayo and Dara, and after Freddie Waits passed away, Roach took Nasheet under his wing, eventually hiring him to play with M’Boom.

”Max always used to say that the drums were treated like the nigger in the band—disrespected in terms of your knowledge of music, your ability to be ‘a real musician.’” Waits says. “Nowadays drummers like Tyshawn Sorey and Marcus Gilmore write as well as anybody else. You have to be to be aware of what’s happening on a lot of levels to be able to play the music. Max may have been the first of his kind like that. He was known as a reader. That’s why he got called to play with Duke Ellington when Sonny Greer was ailing. But then, he said, when he got up to play the chart, there was no chart! So it became instinctual. That’s something that he always stressed to me, personally.

”I had the good fortune of being in his presence quite a bit, on a one-on-one basis, setting up drums and just being around the house. I was starting to get back into playing, and I’d be asking him questions, but his answers were always in a parable, always presented as esoteric knowledge, like trying to get information from a griot and receiving it as a riddle. He always emphasized that the key was to find your own voice, your own path. Everything I’ve heard he plays on always sounds like he’s on the edge, always taking chances, taking it to another level, not satisfied playing the role that drummers traditionally play—and still play.”


1. TRACK: “For Big Sid.”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Drums Unlimited [Atlantic SD1467 / Collectables CD-6256]

Recorded: New York, April 25, 1966

Musicians: Max Roach, drums.

RATING: 100/100

“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, was pretty revolutionary. To me, it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, like “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find connections and threads to the history, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example of that.“For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.

Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.

What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced all types of sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s almost like the stuff that he isn’t playing is just as important as the stuff that he does play. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response, but there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and the tones he uses to express it. DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH, DIGGIT-UH-DUH-UNH-UHN, DAHT-DAHT.] Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out this way. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the

2. TRACK: “Dinka Street”

ARTIST: Max Roach

ALBUM: The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan [Atlantic, Collectables CD-6256

MUSICIANS: Max Roach, drums; Hassan Ibn Ali, piano, composer; Art Davis, bass

RECORDED: New York, December 4, 1964

RATING: 100/100

Jason Moran brought The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hassan to my attention, and it really speaks to me. It’s one of my favorite records, period. The whole record is a departure from traditional piano trio playing I’ve heard up to that point, which is late 1964. It wasn’t like the piano player soloing, and then the drummer and bass player are in support mode, like the Oscar Peterson Trio, or any other trio. It’s like everybody is almost soloing at the same time, or collectively, in the sense of New Orleans collective improvisation. That’s the historical reference I draw from it. It’s never that Max is just playing even the swing pattern and comping for Hassan while he takes a solo. They’re always back and forth, a true conversation. Everybody has individual responsibility as to what’s going on.

The tune starts with an arco bass thing at the beginning, he plays the melody, then a solo section. There’s no real TING, TING-TA-DING, TING-TA-DING swing going on through it. It’s referenced, it’s intimated, but it’s not really that. And Max isn’t really playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 either. There’s no regimented feel throughout the course of the piece. Then the rhythm that all of them are using is pretty advanced. Hassan is playing phrases in 5 and in 7, and they’re all playing over the bar, even when on the trading. All of it is right on the edge. All of them are virtuosos, but they’re taking it to the apex in terms of creativity within the framework of a trio. Even Elvin Jones, as influential as he was in terms of phrasing and so on, generally rooted everything with a 2-and-4 thing on the hi-hat. Max abandoned that in certain situations, and this, as you can clearly hear, was one of them. He told me there were certain techniques you could use to play that way and still maintain the groove—the groove isn’t abandoned, but he’s still not playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. It’s more of a dancing kind of feel. I’ve heard older musicians say that to drummers and to bass players, like, “Yeah, ok, we’re walking, but I want you to dance.” So there’s more freedom involved in how everybody is approaching the rhythm within this group.

There’s also some ride cymbal distinctions on this tune which also, for me, references back to Kenny Clarke. In terms of the music’s evolution, I always think of Papa Jo Jones establishing that ride cymbal pattern, and then Kenny Clarke embellishing on that with techniques like “dropping bombs,” syncopating more between the bass drum and the snare drum, and also varying the ride cymbal pattern, using the ride cymbal more in terms of accents—so not playing four-on-the-floor all the time. On this particular cut, as on the whole recording, Max takes these ideas to another level in the phrases he’s playing in conjunction with what Hassan and Dr. Davis are playing, terms of the pattern of the ride cymbal associated with the omission of the 2-and-4 on the hi-hat. Everybody is listening hard, too, responding and reacting to each other. It’s not like anybody is just doing their own thing. There’s a true synergy. No automatic pilot.

Max changes the texture when the bass solo occurs by switching to the brushes. So takes the flow from a more interactive quality to just straight quarter notes, and changes the dynamic of the piece—more like a movement in a symphony. They’re constructing the music in a way that goes out of the framework of the regular song. From the bass solo in the introduction, to the piano rubato, to the tune, then back to the bass solo—the tune’s structure, the form of the song is pointing forward, elongating. It’s different than the regular 32-bar or 12-bar blues that some people associate with “jazz music.”

3. TRACK: “Tropical Forest”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Birth and Rebirth (Black Saint (It)BSR0024)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, percussion; Anthony Braxton, clarinet

Recorded: Milan, September 1978

RATING: 100/100

My younger brother is like a renaissance man; he does all kinds of things. A few years ago, some of his friends would come around to our studio and hang out, playing chess, and they’d put on this record. These people were in their early twenties, they weren’t musicians, but they really got into the music. I found that very interesting. This date is a set of extemporaneous compositions. They’re just hitting. But man, these people played this thing over and over again. Some of them were dancers. It spoke to them in a very powerful way. So I guess music can transcend boundaries of the acceptable or the unacceptable, or what people call “avant-garde” or “free.” This is a jewel right here!

It’s all beautiful to me, but on this particular cut what strikes me is that Braxton is playing clarinet, and Max is only playing the hi-hat and also a pitch-bending floor-tom, almost reminiscent of the tympany. Max wasn’t afraid to take chances. I don’t know anybody else who had that on their set—the pitch-bending floor tom with the tympany-like pedal. This piece sounds like, I would think, cut-and-splice—they went in and hit for however long a period of time, and took what they liked. “Ok, this is kind of a song form; let’s deal with this one right here.” This one starts out like that. Max initiates a basic phrase on the hi-hat, Braxton comes in and starts responding to that, they’re still having a conversation, and then Max opens up a little bit to the cymbals, and then he goes to the floor tom and alternates between the floor tom and the hi-hat. That’s it. He doesn’t touch any other part of the set for a little over five minutes. But he creates such a wonderful setting.

I wondered why they called this “Tropical Forest.” But then I realized that Braxton sounds almost reminiscent of those crying birds, like a toucan. I started receiving that kind of imagery from the sound he and Max got. In a lot of Max’s tunes, the title creates a certain image. I started seeing a rainforest setting—tropical colors, yellows and oranges.

This made about as powerful an impression on me as when I heard Roy Haynes play “Subterfuge” on Andrew Hill’s Black Fire. Roy just plays hi-hat the whole track, but still projects the force and drive as if he was playing the ride cymbal. Just that same phrase. I got the same feeling when I heard this track. Sonically, it’s almost a three-part structure, but they transmitted the feeling so effectively. That’s one I’m going to have to go back and revisit a lot. You stumble up on stuff, and then you go, “Wow!” You wind up playing it over and over again. That’s definitely one of those.

4. TRACK: Onomatopoeia

Artist: Max Roach

CD: M’Boom (Columbia JC36247, CK57886

Musicians: Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay (composer), Freddy King, Freddie Waits, Warren Smith, Max Roach (drums, percussion, vibraphone, marima, xylophone, tympany), Ray Mantilla (conga, bongo, timbales, Latin percussion); Kenyatte Abdur-Rahman (percussion)

Recorded: July 25, 1979

RATING: 100/100

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it had been a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to the bass drum and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition. A lot of themes and phrases overlap and others emerge. or phrases or whatever. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of stuff where it stops and starts—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, and they’re kind of soloing over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing [CLAPS 11 QUARTER NOTES], they start playing [CLAPS FOUR HALF-NOTES AND THREE EIGHTH-NOTES] and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrance to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

5. TRACK: Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace

Artist: Max Roach

CD: We Insist: Freedom Now Suite [Candid CCD 79002]

Recorded: New York, September 6, 1960

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals)

RATING: 100/100

First and foremost, this recording was really important because of its social implications. The liner notes begin with an A. Philip Randolph quote”: “a revolution is unfurling—America’s unfinished revolution. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now.” That’s where I assume Max copped the title, which was very powerful and definitely indicative of what was happening in the country in 1960. The Civil Rights Bill wouldn’t be signed until 1964. There was a long way to go. Black people in America were living under very severe conditions, and Max was addressing that in the music.

It’s a powerful piece. It’s a duo between Abbey and Max, presented in three parts. Max did a lot of duo work during the course of his career, which speaks to his musical sensitivity, because in every situation, even though he plays some similar language, he presents it differently—and it always seems so fresh and creative. The other day [pianist] Connie Crothers told me they had done a recording on which, he told her, he played some things on brushes that he had never played before. So he was always in tune, always searching for something outside his usual language. We all have language that’s usual to us. I use certain words and phrases more often than others. It’s the same with music. Even a genius and virtuoso such as Max Roach always referenced certain phrases—you can hear them on “Triptych.”

“The Freedom Now Suite,” was a collaborative piece by Max and Oscar Brown, Jr., but “Triptych” is just a duo, which it seems like an extemporaneous composition in three parts. The first part is “Prayer,’ which is the cry of an oppressed people. He starts with a simple phrase. That call-and-response, that antiphony, is always present in his playing. He starts, Abbey is singing, like a prayer, and then the protest emerges from that, where she’s screaming and yelling, and Max is rumbling. There is a definite sense of anger, but there’s also, especially in Max’s playing, a sense of organization. Taking it out of the musical realm and applying it to the social: People had been killed and mistreated for hundreds of years, so there was tremendous anger and resentment, but organization was essential to achieve the goal. I received that message especially in this part, because even though Max is playing aggressively and intensely, there logic in his playing, and he conveys there is also a logic to what he is playing. It’s intense, it’s big, but there’s definitely a logic—and he conveys the message. Abbey as well.

The last part is in 5/4. But Max also references that “Drum Also Waltzes” motif in this section of “Triptych.”

So the image that was created with this song was very powerful and pretty clear. “Triptych” is a piece of art that has three panels, usually the middle one being the larger. That definition doesn’t necessarily apply to this piece; the movements all seem almost equal in length. But I got a very clear visual image from it. Not too long after Miles passed, in late ‘91 or early ‘92, Max organized a memorial for Miles at St. John’s The Divine. Judith Jameson was there, Maya Angelou, different people, and there was some dancing going on. I drove up to the church with him, and we were listening to “Bitches Brew” in the car. He went, “oh, man, I can see these evil-assed chicks brewing some shit.” He was hearing the music and he was relating it directly to the title. He said, “I can see them stirring up some brew to fuck up some cat.” He said it sounds like that.

This has the same effect. I got a very clear picture from “Triptych,” referencing clearly what was going on at that time in America. Max had a lot of problems getting work during this period, from making his political statements. He said a lot of times he went somewhere, and they’d say, “I love this music, but can you just not say anything about this?” He’d say, “No, I have to talk about it.” It was taking money out of his pocket—him and Abbey. I know that she suffered quite a bit as a result of them actually taking a stand and being as vocal about it as they were. Financially speaking, their careers took a hit. So Max always put his money where his mouth was. He was really dedicated. Really high integrity. Willing to sacrifice financial security to get across the message.

6. TRACK: “Fleurette Africaine”

ARTIST: Duke Ellington

CD: Money Jungle [Blue Note CDP 7 46398 2]

Recorded: New York, September 17, 1962

Musicians: Duke Ellington (p) Charles Mingus (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

“Fleurette Africaine” is my favorite song off the legendary Money Jungle record with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. So how can I not include it as one of my favorite cuts that Max was involved in? The great star power of those three individuals together on a record is phenomenal. Actually, to be truthful, I don’t know if Max and Mingus really had that connection in terms of the rhythm section. In fact, Max told me about some things that happened at the session… What happened is probably legendary.

Max was connected to Duke; he’d played with him at 16, his first gig with a signature person, sitting in for Papa Greer [Sonny Greer] for a few nights while Sonny wasn’t feeling well. Here, twenty years later, Max is somewhat of a star himself, and of course, Duke influenced Mingus so much as a composer. To have them all there is special thing. A lot of times, those kind of pulled-together all-star situations don’t work, but this is one of the best dates of that kind.

The Bandwagon recorded “Wig Wise” from this session. I’d never heard it before we recorded, but when I listened, it definitely sounded like they’re at odds, and there’s a lot of aggression coming from Mingus. I dug it, though! It definitely sounds frantic and tense. But this song doesn’t have that quality, which is maybe why it’s my favorite from the album. It’s melancholy, in a way, almost softly sad.

To me, Max provides that calmness. He’s playing mallets, and the feel is subdued throughout. The whole piece sounds like a ballad-fairy-tale song. This is 1962, still the era of the Civil Rights movement, so the fact that they’re referencing something African as beautiful, and equating that with black people, was important. Nowadays it might not necessarily be as important, but then it really was. The “Fleurette Africaine” title references the times—1962 is the year Algeria got its independence from France, and the African nations generally were coming out of the colonial grip. I think the musicians were conscious of that, and were using their music to convey a kinship to those people who were struggling for their independence, because we were doing the same thing over here.

A lot of times it seems that Max is playing the opposite of what Mingus is playing. Mingus goes DING-DING, DING-DING, he’s up in there, and then Max is playing longer. When Mingus is doing the opposite, then Max is rolling. The sound of Max’s playing gives me an image of water in a shallow river bed over small rocks. It sounds like there’s small rocks under what he’s doing. Gentle, sensitive, inobtrusive playing. Very simple melody. Beautiful.

7. TRACK: Donna Lee

ARTIST: Charlie Parker

CD: The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes [Savoy Jazz]

Recorded: New York, May 8, 1947

Musicians: Charlie Parker All Stars: Charlie Parker (alto saxophone, composer); Miles Davis (trumpet); Bud Powell (piano); Tommy Potter (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud Powell split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time. But this tune also exemplifies how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when people are using the same rhythmic language to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.

Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?” The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! Duke Jordan’s comping is really traditional, playing the turnarounds and so on, and the bass player is just walking, but the interaction between Max and Bird is completely different.

On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.

8. TRACK: “Un Poco Loco”

Artist: Bud Powell

CD: The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note)

Recorded: New York, May 1, 1951.

Musicians: Bud Powell (piano); Curly Russell (bass); Max Roach (drums)

RATING: 100/100

On “Un Poco Loco,” Max played one of the greatest beats ever on a jazz recording, in the same category as the beat Vernell Fournier plays on “Poinciana,” or the beat that Art Blakey plays on “Pensativa.” Max told me that in the studio, he was playing some variations on Caribbean-Afro Cuban rhythms, and Bud said, “You’re supposed to be Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything slicker than that?” So Max went home and shedded it out, and he came back with this phenomenal beat. Months later he ran into Bud in the street after not seeing him for a while, and Bud said, “Man, you fucked up my record!” I didn’t understand it. I was wondering what about what Max did destroyed it for Bud Powell, because it’s one of my favorites. Of course, Bud may not have been coming from an entirely rational place.

A lot of people have studied the “Un Poco Loco” beat, because it’s in phrases of 5 over the 4, which was way ahead of the curve at the time. Also, the fact that he’s using that cowbell; the sound he’s getting out of the cowbell. It’s obvious that he spent some time dealing with those rhythms. Max had been spending time in Haiti, where he went to study with a guy who had told him that he was greatest drummer in the world. The guy would tell him, “Come here, meet me right here on this corner at 2 o’clock,” Max would get there at 2, and the guy wouldn’t come until 7—he’d leave him waiting! But he said that the guy gave him invaluable information.

Max did a lot of teaching, but he treated his one-on-one drum instruction like oral tradition. He studied from books, and I’ve studied from books, but that’s only a small component of it. Books will give you the facility to execute the stuff that you hear and feel already, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creativity. This is a perfect example. Max distilled all this stuff and immediately hooked it up into an original beat—you’d never heard anything like it before. It’s the beginning of all those phrases based on rhythmic permutations of five over the four—a step into the future in 1951. A lot of people are playing those types of rhythmic permutations now, almost sixty years later. It sounds like he pulled it together the night before, because it’s right on the edge of almost sounding fucked-up. Then when he comes in, what he plays isn’t clean, the way it was clean with Clifford Brown and that band. It’s right on the edge of almost second-take. I’m talking about everybody. It sounds like it’s not quite settled and comfortable. But I think that quality is what makes it a great recording, and the fact that he was able to superimpose that feeling and beat at that particular time and have it work, keep it happening for almost five minutes. Amazing.

9. TRACK: “Garvey’s Ghost”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Percussion Bitter Sweet [Universal Music Special Markets, B0012607-01]

Musicians: Max Roach (drums); Abbey Lincoln (vocals); Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute); Clifford Jordan (tenor saxophone); Booker Little (trumpet); Julian Priester (trombone); Mal Waldron (piano); Art Davis (bass); Carlos Valdez (congas); Carlos Eugenio (cowbell).

Recorded: New York, August 1, 1961

RATING: 100/100

This is one of my favorite cuts of music of all time. It’s another example of how the title really speaks to what’s happening in terms of the music. This references Marcus Garvey, the great Pan-Africanist in the States during the ‘20s and ‘30s, who died in England at a young age, mistreated, and his organization decentralized by the same tactics used against the Black Panthers some years later. The piece references that history, talking about self-determination, but then it’s also really haunting, ghostly—the melody is so powerful, and the fact that Abbey doesn’t sing any words. Max wrote the song. The solos by Booker Little and Clifford Jordan take are straight fire. Then again, we see that juxtaposition of rhythms against each other, because he has Patato playing the congas and Carlos Eugenio playing the cowbell—Max is kind of playing in 6 but also in 3, in the way he’s swinging, and keeps that pattern almost all throughout the piece. But the way he’s comping, it’s almost like he’s soloing. The way he pushes Booker Little and Clifford Jordan through their solos is reminiscent of a solo that he takes, but he keeps that ride cymbal pattern going the whole time, along with the other percussion. But everybody has a certain freedom within what they’re doing. Even the cascara pattern that the cowbell is playing is not fixed. Max’s ride cymbal pattern is, but the other shit he’s playing completely is not. It’s not like any traditional comping. It’s like collective improvisation. Then he solos over that cascara and the congas, and, as he often does, he utilizes a lot of space. He always plays something and then leaves some space, and then plays something else and leaves some space. He calls, he answers, he answers, and then he leaves some space, and then he calls, he answers, and he leaves some space. He always used to say that. There’s always room. “Get to your shit quick, make a statement, and in making that statement, the things that you don’t play are just as important as the things you do.” That always seemed to be a theme for him, and he utilized it in every component of his career. Always some space for others.

That’s the way it seems he led his life in aligning himself with different people, like the record with Hassan, where he gave him the opportunity to present his original music, and even though it was billed as the Max Roach Trio, the title was The Legendary Hassan. That was the only recording that Hassan made except for another Odean Pope recording that I don’t think was ever released. Or the fact that he aligned himself with Clifford Brown and said, “Let’s lead the band together.” I don’t know if he really had to do that. Also the different duo situations. Always on the cusp, but then also, in a sense, very selfless. To be as prolific as he had to have a strong sense of self, as I know because I was around him. That strong sense of self allowed him to let other people shine as well. It was never, “No, it has to be me, and you can’t do your thing.” It was “come on and do your thing.” This is a perfect example. It’s not like he has to growl over the whole thing. He leaves some space, and then he’ll talk to one of the cats, and communicate. Everybody’s listening. This is a year after We Insist, and Max was still on the same path. There’s tunes like “Man From South Africa,” in 7/4. He’s still making that commentary. He’s still on the soapbox, because it’s important and it’s still current, still developing in America.

In 1991, I remember doing a Sacred Drums tour with Max here in America, one of my very first gigs out of town. Tito Puente was on it, and some of these Native American drummers, some koto, stuff like that. Max was playing with Mario Bauza, who had a small orchestra. He was doing multiple things as well as solo stuff, playing with the small band, and this was one of the other portions of the show. Patato was in the band, too. During one of the rehearsals the piano player came up with some arrangements for Max to read, and he called over to me—I was there as a stagehand, his PA, setting up the cymbals and stuff like that. He was just trying to put some money in my pocket and help me out. Max said, “come here, man. Play this.” So he got me down to play the show, and got me my first traveling gig—with Mario Bauza! I had no idea then who he was. I didn’t know what I was doing with clave and so on. I remember Patato looking at me like, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.” The other cats in the band were very encouraging, but Patato didn’t want to give it up. Which I understood, though, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Some years later, I did a recording with him and Michael Marcus and Rahn Burton, and he was cool—maybe I had gotten a few things together. But he tuned my snare drum. I don’t know how, because he still didn’t speak any English, but he tightened it in a certain way, and that snare drum still sounds great to this day. He showed me how to tune the bottom a little tighter than the top. He had that pitch. That snare drum was singing for years.

10. TRACK: “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street [EmArcy MG 36070]

Recorded: New York, February 16, 1956

Musicians: Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet : Clifford Brown (tp) Sonny Rollins (ts) Richie Powell (p,arr) George Morrow (b) Max Roach (d)

RATING: 100/100

Clifford Brown And Max Roach At Basin Street is one of the albums that I played along with the most when I was younger, and—along with Round Midnight by Miles with Philly, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Crescent, and Horace Silver’s Silver’s Serenade—it’s one of the classic albums that anybody who is interested in pursuing a career in the music really needs to check out. Even though it was only together for about a year, it’s one of Max’s most important bands, with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown on the front line. I love the arrangements and the way that band played together. The stuff was tight. It was a true band—a perfect example of the best. I hate to use that sort of terminology, but that’s the way I feel about it. These cats were executing at such a high level, and the music was so refreshing. It’s still refreshing, to this day.

This one starts off with a little, one-bar intro on the bell of the cymbal, and then they go into five, and then come the solos—Clifford, Sonny, Richie Powell, and Max. One thing that attracts me to this take is the way Richie Powell plays coming out of Max’s solo going back into the top of the song. It’s a seamless transition, like they’re coming together from different places, right into the theme.

It’s important that they were playing in 5/4 in 1956. In American culture most music is in four. It’s just those 5 beats, but with a little lopsided feeling. Now, if we were raised in India or Iraq, we would be accustomed to feeling those rhythms—but we’re not. So the fact that they were using it in “Popular music” meant something in pushing the music forward—initiating something that hadn’t been widely accepted, as happened when Dave Brubeck did “Take Five” a few years later. So this recording is an important document in terms of recorded history. Once an idea is documented, it becomes a possibility. If you were a younger musician in 1956 listening to this for the first time, it may have been the first time you’d heard someone do it, or play a different time signature—and the presentation is so beautiful. Max was part of so many movements where he was ahead of his time, or pointing to the future, part of the vanguard of musicians who always did something challenging.

11. TRACK: “Variation On A Familiar Theme”

ARTIST: Max Roach

CD: Max Roach With The Boston Percussion Ensemble

Musicians: Al Portch (frh) Max Roach (d) Irving Farberman, Everette Firth, Lloyd McCausland, Arthur Press, Charles Smith, Harold Thompson, Walter Tokarczyk (per) Corinne Curry (soprano voice) Harold Faberman (cond, dir, arranger)

recorded in Music Barn of the Music Inn, Lenox, Mass. on Aug. 17, 1958.

RATING: 100/100

I only heard this recently, and it’s an amazing piece—another example of seamless transitions. It runs 2-minutes-20-seconds, and it’s a variation of “Pop Goes The Weasel.” Theoretically it’s like a predecessor to M’Boom. I don’t know if that idea had anything to do with Max’s decision to pull these musicians together, but this was something completely different. He was just guest soloist with the Boston Percussion Ensemble. Harold Faberman did the arrangement.

Here Max is playing within the conventions of orchestral percussion, but from the first time you hear him on the brushes it’s unmistakably him—the same phrasing, the same sound out of the instrument. Regardless of the setting, the language was so indigenous to his person, you know it’s Max regardless of the setting. There are several sections. Max initiates some time with the brushes, then they come in with a theme, then they switch up from 4/4 to 3/4, and he makes that transition, too. A different theme is initiated, and then they transition back into four. This often happens in Western Classical music, but here it’s an interesting juxtaposition of time signatures and also of genre. It’s the “jazz feeling” or whatever, because Max is playing some time countered against what the orchestra is doing with the structure of the piece. He kind of solos in it, but he’s also weaving in and out of the piece, and he’s used to accentuate certain portions. It amazes me that Max was so open and flexible and willing to put himself into so many different positions throughout his career.

I have a degree in music, but the way I learned the music was kind of on the street, watching my Pops play and so forth. I’ve never studied Western classical. Now, Max went to Manhattan School of Music and studied it, but here it sounds like he’s using the techniques that he mastered from his experiences, not from the Western pedagogy. Within the framework of this piece, the music has a certain time feel. When I played with orchestra, it was always challenging from the downbeat, because when I see the conductor come down, I’m thinking that’s the downbeat, but it’s not. Then it’s weird. It’s the downbeat-and, and everyone’s responding to that. Visually, it was so challenging to de-condition yourself—in jazz, it’s always the downbeat, so everyone enters there, whereas in the orchestra the AND after the downbeat is the place. So the fact that Max was able to integrate what he does within that setting so seamlessly, to play the music so impeccably, was impressive—to say the least!

12. TRACK: Streams of Consciousness

Artist: Max Roach

CD: Streams of Consciousness (Baystate (Jap)RVJ-6016)

Musicians: Max Roach, drums, Dollar Brand (aka Abdullah Ibrahim, piano)

Recorded: New York, September 20, 1977

RATING: 100/100

This is another one of Max’s many extemporaneous compositions. On the jacket he writes: “This music is an expression of pure improvisation. Mr. Brand (this is when he was still Dollar Brand) and I had no rehearsals or plans, written or otherwise, as to how or what we were going to record…the resulting cohesiveness, I am sure, had much to do with our environmental similarities.” Another piece on this album is titled “Consanguinity,” and that’s what Max was talking about—the connection between people who are descended from the same ancestry. He’s talking about the fact that he and Abdullah Ibrahim, who was a South African pianist, were equally involved in the struggle for the freedom of their people—or had been involved, because by this time conditions had changed in America, though not in South Africa yet.

But the first cut, which runs about 21 minutes, is called “Stream of Consciousness.” To a certain degree, it’s a spontaneously organized suite that occurs in different movements. They definitely played some construct songs; I don’t know if Abdullah Ibrahim had previously played them, but they were definitely tunes. In between the tunes, a drum solo brings about the transition. That is, in between each statement, there’s a small drum solo, then there was another idea collectively expressed. There are 5 or 6 movements. It goes from drum solo, to interlude, to a 7/4 thing, then the drums initiate a faster 7/4, then they play a couple of blues, a solo—not really any solo piano except when Abdullah Ibrahim plays a little solo at the beginning, and then Max plays some. There are some church inferences after that. You can hear some South African themes, but not as pronounced as you might expect.

It’s another example of Max’s social consciousness and awareness, and also his ability to put himself in an unconventional situation—duo with drums and piano isn’t done that much. In all honesty, the sound is terrible. The bass sounds like a big drum, like he might be using some oil heads or something. The drums themselves don’t sound that good. But the magic between Max and Abdullah is pretty special. It’s obvious that they have a kinship in what’s being played. I think it’s ultimate artistry, not to plan or discuss what’s going to happen, to feel each other out, to let it fly and be open to whatever happens.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazziz, Max Roach, Nasheet Waits